Not all festivals require uncomfortable camping and minimal hygiene. Here are some of the best cultural evens in the world that everyone should experience if they can.
1. Carnaval, Rio de Janeiro
Brazil’s carnival (“Carnaval” for the locals) is one of the most lively celebrations in the world. Held annually at the end of the Brazilian summer, this week-long festival was initially intended to observe the beginning of Lent. However, this originally religious festival is now more of a cultural showcase, as well as a chance for Brazilians to cut loose for a few days. (Looser than usual, that is!)
The highlights of Carnaval are the parades, filled with larger-than-life floats, scantily-clad dancers, and the pounding drum beats of dozens of samba schools. Rio’s carnival attracts about 5 million people every year, with only half a million of these being tourists: indeed, Carnaval is truly beloved by Brazilians of all ages and all walks of life. While the carnival at Rio is the largest and most iconic, major cities throughout the country all have their own celebrations, each with their own distinctive touch.
2. Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Scotland
Every August, hordes of tourists from around the world descend on Scotland’s capital for the largest performance festival in the world. During this month, the city comes alive with entertainments of every kind: dance, theatre, comedy, music, literature, and politics are all represented. Practically every bar in the city — and there are plenty — becomes a venue for the thousands of shows happening all day, every day.
Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s friendly people, charming cobbled streets, and towering castle provide the perfect backdrop to the activities. Every night, the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo takes place in the castle esplanade, a one-of-a-kind spectacle performed by military bands from Britain and Commonwealth countries such as India and Canada.
3. Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, China
Harbin is a city in the north of China, meaning it tends to receive freezing Siberian winds in the winter — a fact it celebrates every January in truly spectacular fashion. The Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival is exactly what it sounds like: a display of the largest and most extravagant ice sculptures in the world. These are not your average snowmen. Instead, picture towering structures over 20 feet high, intricately carved and illuminated at night with a variety of bright colors.
While the statues are the main draw, particularly the ice-lantern display as it lights up at night, the festival also includes a variety of winter activities such as skiing and swimming in the freezing river.
4. Desert Festival of Jaisalmer, India
India is a country famous for its colorful and lively festivals, from the brightly-hued clouds of Holi to the lights and fireworks of Diwali. However, for those seeking something a bit different, the Desert Festival of Jaisalmer is a great option. This festival differs from the more popular ones in that it is not religious in nature, and is not a long-standing tradition: in fact, it was created by the tourism board of Rajasthan.
However, this does not mean that it is not worth the trip. Jaisalmer is a fortress city, most popular as a base for trips to the nearby Thar desert. The Desert Festival, held every February, celebrates these longstanding desert traditions in a three-day flurry of color, dance, and food. Activities include camel racing and mustache competitions, with performances of Rajasthani folk dance and entertainment.
5. Oktoberfest, Germany
Although many cities around the globe hold their own version of Oktoberfest, there is no topping the real thing. Stretching from mid-September to the first week of October (hint!), Oktoberfest in Munich is the largest beer festival in the world. Almost 7 million liters of beer are served every year during the festivities in huge tents and traditional drinking halls.
It’s not swill, either: Munich’s breweries are iconic, serving high-quality beer brewed according to the “German Purity Law,” which sounds a tad Third Reich for our tastes, but actually regulates the manufacture of beer. The law states that the only ingredients allowed are water, barley, and hops.
If spending a few days drinking large quantities of some of the world’s best beer in a beautiful city sounds like your idea of fun, you can’t do much better than Oktoberfest.
6. Pingxi Lantern Festival of Taipei, Taiwan
Lantern Festivals are a popular way of marking the end of Chinese New Year celebrations by illuminating a variety of paper lanterns, from simple floating ones to huge complex models in the shape of animals and buildings. The Pingxi Lantern Festival in Taiwan is just one of these celebrations, but it is one of the prettiest: every year, residents send up thousands of sky lanterns to carry their wishes for the new year, igniting the sky over the Pingxi district of Taipei.
Meanwhile, in the Yanshui District in the south of the country, the lantern festival is celebrated in a more explosive fashion, with a series of notoriously dangerous fireworks. Both celebrations are cultural institutions in Taiwan, and are referred to collectively as “Fireworks in the South, Sky Lanterns in the North.”
Whether these festivals were already on your bucket list or whether you are adding them just now, remember that these events tend to be a huge draw for tourists. Do your research well ahead of time and book in advance for the best prices and hotel rooms, and prepare for crowds. If you do this, you are guaranteed an unforgettable time at any of these amazing celebrations of humanity.